Insurgent terrain

Just available from Gastón Gordillo: ‘Terrain as insurgent weapon: An affective geometry of warfare in the mountains of Afghanistan’, Political Geography (2018) [https://doi.org/10.1016/j.polgeo.2018.03.001].

Gastón explains:

My argument…   is that the irreducibility of terrain can be best examined through the bodily experiences, affects, and agency of the human actors engaging it da lens I call an affective geometry. This is not the Euclidian or Cartesian geometry of mathematized grids, coordinates, and straight lines abstracted from bodies and affects. This is the qualitative, non-linear geometry conceptualized by Spinoza (1982), attentive to how bodies affect and are affected by other bodies in a multiplicity of ways, which range from negative ways that may diminish the body’s capacity to act to positive ways that may expand the body’s powers for action.

In analyzing how bodies are affected by and affect terrain, an affective geometry can be seen as a materialist phenomenology that conceives of human bodies in their subjective interiority and dispositions and also as mobile, self-propelling bodies that in sit- uations of combat dand as long as they remain able bodiesd walk, run, climb rocks, duck on the ground, fall in ditches, shoot, feel exhausted hiking a mountain, and feel pain if hit by gunfire.

 

Turning to the Korengal Valley, and drawing on the work of Sebastien Junger and Tim Hetherington (especially Restrepo: see here for a commentary that meshes with this post) Gastón shows how terrain was opaque, threatening, even penetrative to the US military – for all the ‘imperial verticality’ of its air power – and that the mountains (in all their ‘ambient thickness’) ‘confused them, tired them, and disrupted imperial phantasies of spatial mastery’, whereas their enemies, who weaponised the terrain far more effectively, were able to realise an ‘insurgent verticality’ though their knowledge of and, indeed, intimacy with the mountains.

Sound(ing)s

DAUGHTRY Listening to warMy interest in the militarisation of vision is longstanding, but it’s important not to exaggerate the salience of an increasingly ‘optical war’.  Through ‘The natures of war’ project (see DOWNLOADS tab) I’ve also been drawn to the importance of sound in conducting, surviving and even accounting for military violence (see, for example, herehere, and here).  And, as Martin Daughtry‘s remarkable Listening to war (2015) shows, sound continues to be significant in later modern war too.

Even its absence is significant, sometimes performative: think of all those video feeds from Predators and Reapers that, as Nasser Hussain so brilliantly reminded us, are silent movies – apart from the remote commentary from pilots and sensor operators:

‘The lack of synchronic sound renders it a ghostly world in which the figures seem unalive, even before they are killed. The gaze hovers above in silence. The detachment that critics of drone operations worry about comes partially from the silence of the footage.

The contemporary militarisation (or weaponisation) of sound is double-edged, and I mean that in several sense.

First, Mary Roach has a revealing chapter in Grunt: the curious science of humans at war (2016) on what she calls ‘Fighting by ear: the conundrum of noise’.  It turns out that 50 – 60 per cent of situational awareness comes from hearing – and yet the sound of war can be literally deafening.  The damage is often permanent, but in the heat of battle hearing loss makes it difficult to parse the torrent of noise – to distinguish offensive and defensive fires, to detect direction and range, and to send and receive vital communications.  Mary explains:

ROACH GruntFor decades, earplugs and other passive hearing protection have been the main ammunition of military hearing conservation programs. There are those who would like this to change, who believe that the cost can be a great deal higher. That an earplug can be as lethal as a bullet. Most earplugs reduce noise by 30-some decibels. This is helpful with a steady, grinding background din — a Bradley Fighting Vehicle clattering over asphalt (130 decibels), or the thrum of a Black Hawk helicopter (106 decibels). Thirty decibels is more significant than it sounds. Every 3-decibel increase in a loud noise cuts in half the amount of time one can be exposed without risking hearing damage. An unprotected human ear can spend eight hours a day exposed to 85 decibels (freeway noise, crowded restaurant) without incurring a hearing loss. At 115 decibels (chainsaw, mosh pit), safe exposure time falls to half a minute. The 187-decibel boom of an AT4 anti-tank weapon lasts a second, but even that ultrabrief exposure would, to an unprotected ear, mean a permanent downtick in hearing. Earplugs are less helpful when the sounds they’re dampening include a human voice yelling to get down, say, or the charging handle of an opponent’s rifle. A soldier with an average hearing loss of 30 decibels may need a waiver to go back out and do his job; depending on what that job is, he may be a danger to himself and his unit. “What are we doing when we give them a pair of foam earplugs?” says Eric Fallon, who runs a training simulation for military audiologists a few times a year at Camp Pendleton. “We’re degrading their hearing to the point where, if this were a natural hearing loss, we’d be questioning whether they’re still deployable. If that’s not insanity, I don’t know what is.”

TCAP

For that reason the US military has been experimenting with what it calls ‘Tactical Communication and Protective Systems‘ (‘Tee-caps’, shown above): ear protectors that incorporate radio communications.  They are a response both to the cacophony and the geometry of war:

No one, in the heat of a firefight, is going to pause to take off her helmet, pull back her ear, insert the plug, and repeat the whole process on the other side, and then restrap the helmet. There’s time for this on a firing range, and there might have been time on a Civil War battlefield, where soldiers got into formation before the call to charge…  You knew when the mayhem was about to start, and you had time to prepare, whether that meant affixing bayonets or messing with foamies. There’s no linear battlefield any more. The front line is everywhere. IEDs go off and things go kinetic with no warning. To protect your hearing using earplugs, you’d have to leave them in for entire thirteen-hour patrols where, 95 percent of the time, nothing loud is happening. No one does that.

Saydnaya 1 JPEG

Second, sounds can intimidate – sometimes deliberately so – but they can also be reverse-engineered to reveal the geometry of violence.  One obvious example is the use of sound-ranging to locate artillery batteries on the Western Front in the First World War; but less obvious, and of critical importance, soundscaping can form an important part of a forensic investigation into crimes of war. This brings me to yet another mesmerising project from Eyal Weizman‘s Forensic Architecture agency. Eyal explains:

In 2016 Forensic Architecture was commissioned by Amnesty International to help reconstruct the architecture of Saydnaya – a secret Syrian detention center – from the memory of several of its survivors, now refugees in Turkey.

Since the beginning of the Syrian crisis in 2011, tens of thousands of Syrians, including protestors, students, bloggers, university professors, lawyers, doctors, journalists and others suspected of opposing the regime, have disappeared into a secret network of prisons and detention centers run by the Assad government. Saydnaya, located some 25 kilometers north of Damascus in an East German-designed building dating from the 1970s, is one of the most notoriously brutal of these places.

Torture has become routinised there – and not as a weapon in the grotesque arsenal of ‘enhanced interrogation’ (which, for any Trump fans who have stumbled into this site in error, has been demonstrated countless times not to work anyway).  Amnesty could not be clearer:

There are no interrogations at Saydnaya. Torture isn’t used to obtain information, but seemingly as a way to degrade, punish and humiliate. Prisoners are targeted relentlessly, unable to “confess” to save themselves from further beatings. Survivors say they dreaded family visits as they were always followed by extensive beatings.

Eyal continues:

As there are no recent photographs of its interior spaces, the memories of Saydnaya survivors are the only resource with which to recreate the spaces, conditions of incarceration and incidents that take place inside.

In April 2016, a team of Amnesty International and Forensic Architecture researchers travelled to Turkey to meet a group of survivors who have come forward because they wanted to let the world know about Saydnaya.

To understand the role of sound in the investigation, what Eyal calls ‘ear-witnessing’, here is Oliver Wainwright writing about the project in the Guardian:

“Architecture is a conduit to memory,” says Weizman, describing how an Arabic-speaking architect [Hania Jamal] built a digital model on screen as detainees described specific memories and events. “As they experienced the virtual environment of their cells at eye level, the witnesses had some flashes of recollection of events otherwise obscured by violence and trauma.”

One drop of water

Inmates were constantly blindfolded or forced to kneel and cover their eyes when guards entered their cells, so sound became the key sense by which they navigated and measured their environment – and therefore one of the chief tools with which the Forensic team could reconstruct the prison layout. Using a technique of “echo profiling”, sound artist Lawrence Abu Hamdan was able to determine the size of cells, stairwells and corridors by playing different reverberations and asking witnesses to match them with sounds they remembered hearing in the prison.

“Like a form of sonar, the sounds of the beatings illuminated the spaces around them,” says Abu Hamdan. “The prison is really an echo chamber: one person being tortured is like everyone being tortured, because the sound circulates throughout the space, through air vents and water pipes. You cannot escape it.”

Oliver continues:

Saydnaya detainees developed an acute aural sensitivity, able to identify the different sounds of belts, electrical cables or broomsticks on flesh, and the difference between bodies being punched, kicked or beaten against the wall.
“You try to build an image based on the sounds you hear,” says Salam Othman, a former Saydnaya detainee, in a video interview. “You know the person by the sound of his footsteps. You can tell the food times by the sound of the bowl. If you hear screaming, you know newcomers have arrived. When there is no screaming, we know they are accustomed to Saydnaya.”

Architecture of sound

You can find full details of the project, of its architectural and auditory modelling, and its findings here, and there is also an excellent video on YouTube:

Documenting what is happening provides an essential platform for political and eventually legal action against those responsible.  You can joint Amnesty’s campaign here (scroll down).  Please do.

‘Dearer to the Vultures’

Over at the Paris Review Scott Beauchamp has a beautiful short essay that complements my own reading of Harry Parker‘s Anatomy of a Soldier: ‘Dearer to the Vultures‘.

Here’s how it begins:

My memories of war are fractured: faces disappear like smoke while literal plumes of smoke, their specific shapes and forms, linger on vividly for years. I remember the mesh netting, concrete, and dust smell of tower guard, but the events of entire months are completely gone. I remember the sound of a kid’s voice, but not anything he actually said. I guess that’s what Tim O’Brien meant when he wrote about Vietnam, “What sticks to memory, often, are those odd little fragments that have no beginning or end.”

Parker Anatomy of a soldierMemories of people, too complex to carry through the years, fall apart. It’s easier to find purchase on memories of objects. The weapon I was assigned on my first deployment to Iraq was an M249 SAW, or what we would colloquially and inaccurately refer to as the “Squad Assault Weapon.” I remember the way it felt to disassemble—the slight give of the heat-shield assembly, its tiny metal pincers clinging to the barrel. I remember the sound of the feed tray snapping shut on a belt of ammunition. And I remember the tiny rust deposits on the legs of my weapon’s bipod, which would never go away, no matter how hard I scrubbed with CLP (Cleaner, Lubricant, and Protectant oil). I remember my SAW’s voice and the things it said.

During my second deployment, I served as the gunner in a Bradley Fighting Vehicle. We ran over two Soviet-era landmines that had been stacked on top of each other. Besides a few bruises and perforated eardrums, everyone in the crew was fine. When I would try to tell people the story back home, civilians would get caught up on the descriptions of objects they had never heard of, objects that were integral to understanding my experience of the event. “Were you hurt?” Not really, I’d say, but my head slammed against the ISU, and since we had the BFT mounted in a weird place, that sort of got in the way. “What’s an ISU and a BFT?”

I came to realize that the barrier in explaining my injuries to civilians wasn’t quite phenomenological so much as it was ontological. Everyone has experienced pain, fear, and frustration, but not everyone knows what an Integrated Sight Unit is or has had their face slammed into one. Even in just trying to narrate the events to family members, it seemed like any understanding of my trauma would have to come through a knowledge of the materials around me that made the trauma possible: the ISU, the Bradley Fighting Vehicle, the way the tracks moved, the type of soil underneath the tracks, how the mine mechanism worked, the radios we used to call in the explosion to base.

Harry Parker, a former British Army Captain, recently published Anatomy of a Soldier, a novel that puts forward an object-oriented ontology of war: an assertion that the material objects sharing the battleground with humans play an equal role in the composition of reality itself.

And the rest is equally worth reading, including some interesting reflections on ‘the rush from the intimate to the inanimate’ –and its limitations.

I first wrote about Anatomy of a Soldier here, followed it up with a notice of an interview with Harry Parker at the Imperial War Museum here (where I’m currently working, deep in the Research Room), and finally summarised my conference presentation on the book and its implications in San Francisco here (‘Object Lessons’: the presentation slides are available under the DOWNLOADS tab).

Object Lessons

I was supposed to give a shortened version of ‘Little boys and blue skies‘ at the AAG Annual Meeting in San Francisco (about drones and atomic war: available under the DOWNLOADS tab) and fully intended to do so.  But in the event – and as I implied in a previous post – I decided to talk instead about Harry Parker‘s Anatomy of a soldier.  It was a spur of the moment decision, though it had been pricking away in my mind ever since I read the novel, and I only decided to do it at 10.30 the night before: madness.  But it was much closer to the theme of the sessions organised by Kate Kindervater and Ian Shaw on ‘Objects of Security and War: Material Approaches to Violence and Conflict‘ than my original presentation would have been.

I’ve added the presentation to those available under the DOWNLOADS tab (scroll right down).

I hope that most of it will be self-explanatory, but some notes might help.  I started out by invoking Tim O’Brien‘s twin accounts of the Vietnam War, The things they carried and If I should die in a combat zone, which provide vivid reminders of the weight – physical and emotional – borne by ground troops and the toll they impose on the soldier’s body.

I talked about this in ‘The natures of war‘ (also under the DOWNLOADS tab) and – following in the footsteps of that essay – I sketched a brief history of the objects soldiers carried in to the killing fields: from the Somme in 1916 through Arnhem in 1944 to Helmand in Afghanistan in 2014 [shown below].  My source for these images was photographer Thom Atkinson‘s portfolio of Soldiers’ Inventories.

KIT Helmand 2014

But I was more interested now in the objects that carried the soldiers, so to speak, which is why I turned to Anatomy of a soldier.  

In order to throw the novel into even sharper relief, I outlined some of the other ways in which IED blasts in Afghanistan have been narrated.  These ranged from the US Army’s own schematics [the image below is taken from a presentation by Captain Frederick Gaghan here]  to Brian Castner’s truly brilliant non-fiction All the ways we kill and die, in which he describes his investigation into the death of his friend Matt Schwartz from an IED blast in Helmand in January 2012. (This book has taught me more about the war in Afghanistan than anything – I mean anything – I’ve ever read).

GAGHAN Attacking the IED Network jpegs

All of this prepared the ground for Parker’s novel which tells the story of a young British officer in Helmand, Tom Barnes, who loses his legs to an IED blast – told in 45 short chapters by the different objects involved.  Not all of the chapters are wholly successful, but many of them are utterly compelling and immensely affecting.  The overall effect is to emphasize at once the corporeality of war – ‘virtually every object-fragment that is proximate to Barnes is impregnated with his body: its feel – its very fleshiness – its sweat, its smell, its touch’ – and the object-ness of military violence.

GREGORY The body as object-space

I juxtaposed the novel to Parker’s own story – he too lost his legs to an IED in Afghanistan in July 2009.  Yet he constantly emphasises that he never wanted the novel to be about him.

Harry Parker reading from Anatomy of a Soldier, IWM, LOndon

Still, the body is central to all this – Parker’s body and Barnes’s body – and so finally I drew on Roberto Esposito‘s Persons and Things to draw the wider lesson and, in particular, to nail the treacherous lie of ‘bodiless war’:

GREGORY The things that carry them

GREGORY Bodiless war

Anatomy of a war

PARKER Anatomy of a soldier

‘He straightened and held me in one hand.  “Right, orders for tomorrow’s operation,” he said.   “We’re deploying most of the company for the first time and the whole platoon’s out together.  It’s a standard route security operation for the logistics convoy bringing in our supplies.  There’s nothing complicated about this patrol, but we’ll be static for long periods and that will make us vulnerable.  We have to clear all the roads in our AO and then secure it so the convoy can travel safely through.”  He moved his hand up my shaft and used me to point at the flat ground.

“Is everyone happy with the model?” he said.

There were a few silent nods from the watching men.

“Just to orientate you again.  This is our current location.”  He pointed me at a tiny block of wood near the centre of the grid that had PB43 written on it in peeling blue paint.  It was the largest of a hundred little wooden squares placed carefully across the earth and numbered in black.  “This is Route Hammer.”  He moved my end along a piece of orange ribbon that was pinned into the dirt.  “And this blue ribbon represents the river that runs past Howshal Nalay.”  I swept along the ribbon over a denser group of wooden blocks.  “These red markers are the IED finds in the last three months, so there’s quite a few on Hammer.”  I hovered over red pinheads…

He started describing the plan and used me to direct their attention to different parts of the square.  He said their mission was to secure the road and then provide rear protection.  He told them how they would move out before first light and push along the orange ribbon, past the blocks with L33 and L34 written on them.  I paused as he explained how vulnerable this point was, and that one team would provide overwatch at the block marked M13 while others cleared the road.

I was pointed at one of the men, who nodded that he understood.

He told them how they would spread out between block L42 and the green string.  Two other platoons would move through them and secure the orange ribbon farther up.  Then he swept me over the zones they were most likely to be attacked from.  He said the hardest part of the operation was to clear the crossroads at the area of interest named Cambridge; this was 6 Platoon’s responsibility.  I hovered over where the orange ribbon was crossed by white tape.

I had done it all before: secured sections of the ribbon, dominated areas of dirt, reassured little labels, ambushed red markers and attacked through clusters of wooden blocks.  I had destroyed as my end was pushed down hard and twisted into the ground.  I’d drawn lines in the sand that were fire-support positions and traced casualty evacuation routes through miniature fields.  I was master of the model.’

This passage comes from Harry Parker‘s stunning novel about the war in Afghanistan, Anatomy of a soldier (Faber, 2016).

In one sense, perhaps, it’s not so remarkable: the use of improvised physical models to familiarise troops with the local terrain is a commonplace even of later modern war.  In Rush to the intimate (DOWNLOADS tab) I described how in November 2004, immediately before the second US assault on Fallujah, US Marines constructed a large model of the city at their Forward Operating Base, in which roads were represented by gravel, structures under 40′ by poker chips and structures over 40′ by Lego bricks (see image below). Infantry officers made their own physical model of the city using bricks to represent buildings and spent shells to represent mosques.

Fallujah model

I called this a ‘rush from the intimate to the inanimate’, and discussed the ways in which the rendering of the city as an object-space empty of life was a powerfully performative gesture – one in which, as Anne Barnard put it, the soldiers straddled the model ‘like Gulliver in Lilliput’.

As the passage I’ve just quoted suggests, it was standard practice in Afghanistan too; here are soldiers from the Afghan National Army studying a model for Operation Tufan/Storm, a joint ANA/UK operation in Helmand:

Afghan Warriors Tackle Insurgents in Huge Joint Operation with Scottish Troops

So far, then, so familiar.  But the passage with which I began is remarkable because the narrator – whose shaft is gripped by the officer’s hand, who hovers over the orange ribbon, who confesses to having done it all before – is the handle of a broken broom.  ‘My first purpose was to hold my head down against the ground as I brushed sand out of a small, dirty room,’ the chapter begins.  ‘In time, my head loosened and the nail then held it on pulled free.  Someone tried to push it back on, but my head swung round and fell off.  I was discarded.’

‘That would have been the end of me,’ the broom handle continues – ‘my head was burned with the rubbish’ – ‘but I was reinvented and became useful again.’

The novel tells the story of Captain Tom Barnes, a British army officer who steps on an IED while on patrol in Afghanistan; he is airlifted to the Role 3 hospital at Camp Bastion and then evacuated to Britain; he loses both his legs, the first to the effects of the blast and the second to infection.  And the narrative is reconstructed through the objects that are entangled in – and which also, in an extraordinarily powerful sense, animate – the events.

So, for example, a tourniquet:

‘My serial number is 6545-01-522… A black marker wrote BA5799 O POS on me and I was placed in the left thigh pocket of BA5799’s combat trousers… At 0618 on 15 August, when I was sliding along BA5799’s thigh, I was lifted into the sky and turned over.  And suddenly I was in the light… I was pulled open by panicked fingers and covered in the thick liquid… I was wound tighter, gripping his thigh… I clung to him as we flew low across the fields and glinting irrigation ditches…’

CAT-Combat-Application-Tourniquet-740x476

The story is continued in and through other object-fragments.  On patrol, a boot; day-sack; helmet (‘My overhanging rim cut his vision as a black horizontal blur and my chinstrap bounced up against his stubble as he pounded onto each stride’); night vision goggles (‘My green light reflected off the glassy bulge of his retina’); a radio (‘His breathing deepened under the weight of the kit and condensation formed on the gauze of my microphone… I continued to play transmissions in BA5799’s ear as the other stations in the network pushed farther up the road’); an aerial photograph (‘He took me out and traced his finger across my surface… in the operations room a small blue sticker labelled B30 was moved across a map pinned to the wall.  That map was identical to me’); and his identity tags (‘I had dropped around your neck and my discs rested on the green canvas stretcher stained with your blood’).

Medical care en route to Bastion

After the blast from the IED and a helicopter evacuation, the medical apparatus: a tube inserted into his throat at Camp Bastion’s trauma centre (‘I was part of a system now; I was inside you…’); a surgical saw (‘He held me like a weapon, and down at the end of my barrel was my flat stainless-steel blade… My blade-end cut through the bone, flashing splinters and dust from the thin trench I gouged out’); a plasma bag (‘I hung over you… I was empty; my plastic walls had collapsed together and red showed only around my seals.  The rest of the blood I’d carried since a young man donated it after a lecture, joking with a mate in the queue, was now in you’); a catheter; a wheelchair; his series of prosthetics (‘You pressed your stump into me and we became one for the first time… Slowly you outgrew all my parts and the man switched them over until I only existed as separate components in a cupboard and you’d progressed to a high-activity leg and a carbon-fibre socket’).

The agency of many of the objects is viscerally clear:

‘I lived in the soil.  My spores existed everywhere in the decomposing vegetable matter of the baked earth.  Something happened that meant I was suddenly inside you…  I was inside your leg, deep among flesh that was torn and churned.  I lived there for a week and wanted to take root, but it wasn’t easy… I struggled to survive.  Except they missed a small haematoma that had formed around a collection of mud in your calf…  You degraded and I survived… I made you feverish and feasted unseen on your insides…’

Or again, his first prosthetics:

‘You improved on me but you became thinner.  The pressure I exerted on you, and the weight you lost from the energy I used, made your stump shrink.  I could no longer support you properly.’

And the new ones:

‘Your hand caressed my grey surface and felt around the hydraulic piston under my knee joint… You’d been waiting for me but were nervous about what I might do for you…’

What is even more remarkable, as many of the passages I have quoted demonstrate, is that these events are narrated through objects that in all sorts of ways show how military violence reduces not only the ground but the human body to an object-space, perhaps nowhere more clearly than in this remark: ‘You were not a whole to them, just a wound to be closed or a level on a screen to monitor or a bag of blood to be changed.’  And yet: virtually every one of those passages is also impregnated with Barnes’s body: its feel – its very fleshiness – its sweat, its smell, its touch.

O'BRIEN The things they carriedI think this is an even more successful attempt to render the corporeality of war through its objects than Tim O’Brien‘s brilliant account of Vietnam in The Things They Carried (for more, see my post on ‘Boots on the Ground‘ and my essay on ‘The natures of war’: DOWNLOADS tab). This is, in part, because the narrative is not confined to those objects close to Barnes’ own body; it spirals far beyond them to include a drone providing close air support (‘I banked around the area and my sensor zoomed out again and I could see the enemy in relation to the soldiers who needed me’) and, significantly, extends to the components of the IED and the bodies of the insurgents who constructed and buried it.

There is a powerful moment when the two collide, when the father of a young insurgent killed in the drone strike wheels his son’s body to the patrol base:

‘The corpse was half in me, with my front end under it and my handles sticking up in the air.  He managed to push it farther into me and the distended head bounced off my metal side.  Dried blood showed around its ears and nose and was red in its mouth.  And then he pushed my handles down and I scooped it all up…  The corpse’s eyes had opened from the jolting and looked up at him.  He looked down into them, at his son’s face and the blue lips and purple blotching across his cheeks and he knew he had already accepted the loss.  He lowered my handles and smoothed the eyelids shut again.  He pushed me down the road.’

Barnes reaches for a compensation form, which takes up the story:

‘There was a leaflet that BA5799 had read tucked in the notebook next to me.  It described how to deal with this.  What to say, what not to say…  He was dealing with death in an alien culture and he had no idea how to relate to this man or the death of his son…  BA5799 wanted to feel compassion for this man and his dead son but only felt discomfort and the man’s eyes challenging him.  And all he cared about was getting back into the base and the loss of a potential asset in securing the area.’

All of these criss-crossing, triangulating lines capture not only the anatomy of a soldier but an anatomy of the war itself – at once calmly, coolly and shockingly abstract – in a word, objectified – and invasively, terrifyingly, ineluctably intimate.

***

Harry Parker (Ben Murphy photo)Postscript: You probably won’t be surprised to learn that Anatomy of a soldier is based on Harry Parker’s own experience.  Out on patrol with his men on 18 July 2009 in central Helmand he stepped on an IED; he lost his lower left leg in the blast and had his lower right leg amputated at Selly Oak Hospital in Birmingham (the major centre for advanced trauma care for the British military).  ‘‘Writing about the explosion felt good creatively,’ he told Christian House, ‘but also you’ve mined your personal experiences’ and the process left him ‘a sweaty mess’.  I’ve written about what Roy Scranton calls ‘the trauma hero‘ before, and so it’s important to add that Parker insists that the novel is not disguised autobiography: ‘I didn’t want to write, “I was in the Helmand valley.”’

One other note: at the AAG meeting in San Francisco next month Iain Shaw and Katherine Kindervater have organised a series of really interesting sessions on Objects of Security and War:

These sessions aim to bring together scholars working in the areas of war and security that are attentive to the materialities of contemporary violence and conflict. We are especially interested in work that seeks to place objects of security and war within a wider set of practices, assemblages, bodies, and histories. From drones and documents, to algorithms and atom bombs, the materiality of state power continues to anchor and disrupt the conduct and geography of (international) violence.

I’m part of those sessions – but reading Anatomy of a soldier has made me think about giving an altogether different presentation. I’ve long argued that we need to disrupt that lazy divide between ‘fact’ and ‘fiction’ and that literature is able to convey important truths that evade conventional academic prose (hence my unbounded admiration for Tom McCarthy‘s C, for example).  And Anatomy of a soldier convinces me that I’ll find more inspiration in novels like that than in whole libraries on object-oriented philosophy…

Bodies at risk

This is far more than a post-script to my last post.  In writing ‘The Natures of War’ I started to develop the concept of a corpography (see also ‘Corpographies’ DOWNLOADS tab) because I became keenly interested in the ways in which the entanglements between military violence and ‘nature’ were registered on and through the body.

I had an appreciative message from Eileen Rositzka, following my Neil Smith Lecture at St Andrews, and I’ve finally caught up with a marvellous, exquisitely illustrated essay she has co-written with Robert Burgoyne: ‘Goya on his Shoulder: Tim Hetherington, Genre Memory, and the Body at Risk.’  It was published in Frames Cinema Journal 7 (2015) and is available open access here.

The figure of the body in narratives of war has long served to crystallize ideas about collective violence and the value or futility of sacrifice, often functioning as a symbol of historical transformation and renewal or, contrastingly, as a sign of utter degeneration and waste. As a number of recent studies have shown, the power of somatic imagery to shape cultural perceptions of war has had a decisive impact on the way wars have been regarded in history, and has sometimes influenced the conduct of war as it unfolds.

Following my good friend Gastón Gordillo‘s exemplary lead, I’ve been thinking about extending my original analysis from the mud of the Western Front in the First World War, the deserts of North Africa in the Second, and the rainforests of Vietnam into Afghanistan (for the book-version of the essay), and ‘Goya on his shoulder’ is full of all sorts of ideas on how to do exactly that.  Gastón has made much of Sebastian Junger/Tim Hetherington‘s extraordinary film Restrepo – see here and especially here – and Robert and Eileen add all sorts of insights to the mix and, in particular, provide an illuminating visual genealogy of the issues at stake:

With their concentrated focus on the body in war, Restrepo and Infidel also mark an intervention into contemporary debates in the emerging doctrine of “bodiless war” or virtual war – what is known in war policy circles as the “Revolution in Military Affairs” (RMA). In contrast to the decorporealised, bloodless war culture promoted and even celebrated in many contemporary theories of war, Restrepo and Infidel implicitly dramatise the limitations of so called “optical war” in many current conflict zones, emphasising the body of the soldier as a critical site of representation and meaning.

Their journey takes them from photography of the American Civil War through Edward Steichen‘s mesmerising project to capture what they call ‘bodies at risk’ in the Pacific theatre of the Second World War to Afghanistan today.  As it happens, I’ve spent the last several weeks immersed in Steichen’s project for my ‘Reach from the skies’ lectures: Steichen was one of the foremost architects of aerial photography on the Western Front during the First World War, and the photographs taken of US sailors taken under his direction during the Second have much to show us about the entanglements between military violence, masculinism and the body (the slide below is taken from my discussion in ‘Reach from the sky’).

RFTS Masculinism and military violence.001

And so to Restrepo:

‘… the work of Hetherington and Junger marks an intervention in the contemporary cultural imaginary of war, dramatizing the limitations of so called “optical war” or “bodiless war” in the conflict zones of Afghanistan. The concentrated attention to the touchscape of modern war in their work, moreover, provides a fresh perspective on older traditions of visual representation, illuminating the genre codes of war photography and film in a new way. The visual and acoustic design of Restrepo, in particular, captures the haptic geography of combat in a remote mountain outpost in the Korengal Valley. The film highlights the concentrated experience of sound and touch, providing a first-person account of the way the body inhabits contested space, the way the intensities of war confuse and overwrite the sensory codes of vision, and the compensatory drive of somatic mastery, which is projected in vivid displays of masculine athleticism in the relative safety of the enclosure.

What Steichen called “the machinery of war” is all but absent in these images. Like Steichen, Hetherington expresses the brotherhood of the men in directly physical, gestural forms – in close physical contact, in the “bloodying” of new men, and in the tattoos they give each other with a tattoo gun they have brought up to the camp…

Depictions of war in Restrepo and Infidel revolve around touch – the heat, cold, and dirt, the intense exertion, the texture of skin. Although Hetherington’s images of white, muscular soldiers may be compared to the displays of imperial masculinity celebrated by Edison in his War-Graph actualities, and by Roosevelt in his appeal to the brave “game boys” of military adventure, they also relay the heightened sensuality of Steichen’s World War II sailors to a contemporary war setting. Scenes that contain a high quotient of violence – the firefights with insurgents, the roughhousing, the bloodying of new recruits – are here juxtaposed with shots of soldiers sleeping and other scenes of quiet reflection…

Foregrounding the body of the soldier as a medium of sensory experience and as a body at risk, their work recalls the long history of war photography, painting, and film, dramatizing the importance of the figure of the body in narratives of war, and the power of somatic imagery to shape cultural perceptions of conflict. In Restrepo and Infidel, haptic experience and embodied vulnerability unfold as the central fact of war, the heart of warfare. Here too, however, a certain cultural imaginary is invoked, visible in Junger’s discussion of “young men in war” and of the “hard wiring” of young men for the violence of war, a theme that sacrifices any consideration of context, as if war was an existential constant. Nonetheless, in this framing of contemporary western war, centred on the haptic geography of combat, we can see an initial sketch, an introduction, to a critical understanding of the corpography of war in the current period.

My extracts don’t do justice to the range and depth of the essay, and it really does repay close reading.

Bodies of violence

wilcox-bodies-of-violence

I’m finally working my way through Lauren Wilcox‘s impressive Bodies of Violence (see my earlier notice here), both to develop my ideas about corpography in general (see here, here and here) and to think through her arguments about drones in particular (in the penultimate chapter, ‘Body counts: the politics of embodiment in precision warfare’).

More on both later, but in the meantime there’s an extremely interesting symposium on the book over at The Disorder of Things that went on for most of last month.  I’ll paste some extracts below to give a flavour of the discussion, which is well worth reading in its entirety.

Lauren Wilcox on ‘Bodies of Violence: Theorizing embodied subjects in International Relations’.

[W]hile war is actually inflicted on bodies, or bodies are explicitly protected, there is a lack of attention to the embodied dynamics of war and security…. I focus on Judith Butler’s work, in conversation with other theorists such as Julia Kristeva, Donna Haraway and Katherine Hayles. I argue, as have others, that there is continuity between her works on “Gender” from Gender Trouble and Bodies that Matter and her more explicitly ethical and political works such as Precarious Life and Frames of War. A central feature of Butler’s concept of bodily precarity is that our bodies are formed in and through violence….
My book makes three interrelated arguments:

First, contemporary practices of violence necessitate a different conception of the subject as embodied. Understanding the dynamics of violence means that our conceptual frameworks cannot remain ‘disembodied’. My work builds on feminist and biopolitical perspectives that make the question of embodiment central to interrogating power and violence.

Second, taking the embodied subject seriously entails conceptualizing the subject as ontologically precarious, whose body is not given by nature but formed through politics and who is not naturally bounded or separated from others. Feminist theory in particular offers keen insights for thinking about our bodies as both produced by politics as well as productive of [politics].

Third, theorizing the embodied subject in this way requires violence to be considered not only destructive, but also productive in its ability to re-make subjects and our political worlds.

Antoine Bousquet on ‘Secular bodies of pain and the posthuman martial corps

[I]t increasingly appears that the attribution of rights is made to hinge on the recognition of their putative holder’s ability to feel pain, even where this might breach the species barrier or concern liminal states of human existence. As such, any future proponents of robot rights may well have to demonstrate less the sentient character of such machines than their sensitivity to pain (of course, it may well turn out that one entails the other). In relation to Bodies of Violence, if we are indeed to take the liberal conception of pain as purely negative as limiting (and we should perhaps not be too hastily dismissive of the moral and societal progresses that can be attributed to it), how does the recognition of ‘vulnerable bodies’ advocated by Wilcox depart from such an understanding? Is it simply a call for dismantling the asymmetries that render the pain of certain subjects less acknowledgeable than others or does it propose to actually restore a ‘positivity’ to suffering within a post-Christian worldview?…

[A]s our knowledge of the human as an object of scientific study grows, our conception of the human as a unitary and stable entity becomes increasingly untenable, incrementally dissipating into a much broader continuum of being to be brought under the ambit of control. But where does such an expanded framing of human life leave the ‘normative model of the body’ as ‘an adult, young, healthy, male, cisgendered, and non-racially marked body’ (p.51) from which all minoritarian deviations are to be variously silenced, regulated and policed? Does the technicist efficiency-driven mobilisation of human life not corrode those normative hierarchies that do not contribute to or might even impede such a process? As Wilcox notes, the traditional investment of masculinist values in the military institution is unsettled when ‘the precision bomber or drone operator is seen as a “de-gendered” or “post-gendered” subject, in which it does not matter whether the pilot or operator is a male or female’ (p.135). Indeed, there seems to be no inherent reason why any number of deviations from the normative body would be an obstacle to their integration into the assemblage of military drones, to stay with that example. One can even conceive of cases where they could be beneficial – might not certain ‘disabilities’ offer particularly propitious terrain for the successful grafting of cybernetic prosthetics? In this context, corporeal plasticity and ontological porosity seem less like the adversaries of posthuman martiality than its necessary enablers.

Kevin McSorley on ‘Violence, norms and embodiment

[W]hat sense there might be any particular limits to the explanatory value of the key sensitising theoretical framework of embodied performativity and ‘normative violence’ that is deployed across all the numerous case studies considered here. Notwithstanding the supplementary engagement in certain chapters with further vocabularies of e.g. abjection or the posthuman to problematize bodily boundaries, the social embodiment of violent norms is really the major theoretical underpinning of all of the analyses undertaken in each of the five different case studies selected for interpretation. My sense was that Bodies of Violence was primarily concerned with establishing broad proof of concept that such theoretical deployment could work rather than engaging with detailed questions about the potential limits of its conceptual purchase and differences in explanatory value across the five varied case studies. The analyses undertaken propose if anything a near-universal analytic utility for the conceptual framework deployed in that there is a consistent interpretation that underlying normative violences operate within each of the different case studies. Additional comparative analysis, that specifically highlighted and attempted to think through where and why the interpretative framework might be especially productive, or indeed where and why it might feel less resonant and begin to break down, may potentially be insightful for further theoretical elaboration….

[W]hat might happen if the many embodied subjects theorised were able to more consistently speak back to theory, if their feelings and desires were more enfleshed in the analysis[?] Would the stability of this conceptual grid of intelligibility remain intact and unmoved if such encounters and dialogues were able to be staged, if the complex emotions and meaning-worlds of those socially embodied subjects actively negotiating normative violences could have a more audible place in the analysis?

Alison Howell on ‘Bodies, and Violence: Thinking with and beyond feminist IR

Can a theory rooted in a singular concept of ‘the body’ take full account of difference? Can it register the diverse ways in which different bodies become subject to and constituted through power and violence, or management and governance?

Wilcox does amply illustrate that there is no such unitary thing as ‘the body’… [but] there are long-standing traditions of theorizing embodiment and de-naturalizing ‘the body’ in anti-racist, postcolonial, and disability scholarship. These critical traditions should not be subsumed under the category of feminist scholarship, though they do certainly engage with feminist theory, often critically. They make unique contributions to theorizing embodiment, often through intersectional analyses.

Bodies of Violence does take up many texts from these traditions, but, for instance makes use of Margrit Shildrick’s and Jasbir Puar’s earlier work on the body, without also contemplating each of their more recent work on disability and debility…. A second line of inquiry a renewed focus on embodiment potentially suggests might center around the as-yet unmet potential for studying the role of medicine in IR. The sine qua non of medicine is, after all, the body, and if embodiment is important in the study of IR, then we should also be studying that system of knowledge and practice that has taken for itself authoritative dominion over bodies and that does the kind of productive work in relation to embodiment that Wilcox is interested in illuminating.  As with disability studies, there is a significant literature, in this case emanating out of medical anthropology, medical sociology, bio-ethics and history of medicine….

But what of the book’s other titular concept: violence?  Bodies of Violence suggests that to study embodiment is also to study violence. Yet violence is a concept and not merely a bare fact: ‘violence’ is a way of making sense and grouping together a number of practices….

Butler’s work has been central to de-essentializing both sex and gender, thus undermining radical feminist theories of violence that ascribe peacefulness to women and violence to men.Yet Butler’s work is less useful as a tool for excavating the particularly racist and Eurocentric forms that radical feminist thought on violence has taken. Instead, we might look towards Audre Lorde’s debates with Mary Daly, and to the succeeding traditions of anti-racist feminist thought.

Pablo K [Paul Kirby] on ‘Bodies, what matter?

Thinking about the value of bodies draws us into a contemplation of human life and its treatment. Which is why the mere act of recognising bodies can seem tantamount to calling for the preservation and celebration of life. Drawing attention to bodies to highlight an equality of concern due to those who have otherwise been rendered invisible is itself to engage in materialisation, making those bodies matter in a different way. It is a way to turn bodies (which are, on the whole, visible to us) into persons (entities with value and meaning which we may not recognise). And yet the body – precisely because it is inescapable and ubiquitous – is also evasive, and the form of its mattering elusive.

For Judith Butler, ‘mattering’ is the conjoined process of materialisation (suggestive of the way bodies are produced or come into being) and meaning (how bodies are recognised and invested with worth). The stress in contemporaneous and subsequent work on material-isation (on matter-ing) is thus intended to signal a break with ideas of matter as simply there, as idle or inert, and therefore as a kind of brute fact which is inescapable or consistent in its ahistorical role. Thus we are pushed to examine not the characteristics of matter, but the historical process of mattering; not the innate sex that simply bears gender constructions, but the moments which seemed to establish bodies (or body parts) as prior to the sign system which names them. The point is well taken, and has consequences for a theory of embodiment…

And so what is needed is a deeper excavation of the form, degree and value of mattering.

For the so-called new materialists, such a theory means attributing a certain agency to bodily substance (genetics, morphology, neural pathways, flesh itself). As Karen Barad has insisted:

any robust theory of the materialization of bodies would necessarily take account of how the body’s materiality – for example its anatomy and physiology – and other material forces actively matter to the process of materialization.

This is importantly different to saying that political regimes interpret and work bodies in distinct ways. In Bodies of Violence, despite the emphasis on how bodies produce politics, it is mainly politics that produces bodies. Or better, politics that intervenes on and shapes bodies.

Lauren Wilcox, ‘Theorizing embodiment and making bodies “matter“‘